Directed by Nicolas Pesce
Some horror fans, myself fully included, are like (Brundle)flies in that, while we watch lots of good stuff we’ll also gravitate towards shit. Part of being this sort of fan is you spend lots of time watching stuff you know you’re not going to enjoy, simply because it’s both there and horror, then complaining about it. Whether it’s the endless sequels, which go on to fund the next for slightly less money in a self-sustaining cycle of time-wasting, or in this case reboots of remakes. It begins innocently enough: maybe you always wondered if the Lament Configuration means something, or what the heck would happen if someone got their hands on an enchanted lamp/ mirror/ clock from the Amityville house. Then one day you wake to find there are 13 movies in The Grudge franchise.
As per its titular curse, the series won’t end. Still, sometimes a long-running property will mix it up a bit by sending its villain off to space or giving them a hillbilly family and visions of a white horse. No such luck here. The Grudge does exactly what you’d expect it to: presents multiple stories, set in different times, all revolving around the same house. This time we’re in America, where a place where a person died, in the powerful grip of extreme rage or sorrow, has birthed a curse that attaches itself to all who enter. The unlucky visitors include a youngish couple preparing to have their first kid, an older couple in which the wife is mentally disintegrating, and a detective investigating the tendency for occupants to die. Something all these plots have in common is a strong cast, including Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Jacki Weaver and Lin Shaye (the lady from Insidious).
However, they also share much the same narrative. Across them all, we have the same formula: things start slowly, with the leads being plagued by visions of flies, baths of dark water, long-haired women and creepy kids (unfortunately Cat Boy isn’t back). With both couples, these lead to climaxes in which people die – a suspense-puncturing plot point revealed very early on. They all follow roughly the same trajectory and, annoyingly, the same tired pace. Often it’s in this escalation where supernatural horror horrors struggle. Unlike slashers, they tend to focus on families rather than pitting lots of obnoxious characters together, so can’t just off someone whenever the audience feels safe. So instead the structure tends to involve creating a sustained sense of dread that builds to a crescendo.
To an extent, The Grudge attempts this, with the malevolent force getting ever more malevolent as it goes on. But, an act 2 scene in a dark police station aside, it rarely commits to dread where jumps will do. So the scare scenes mostly consist of short, self-contained and transparently telegraphed, vignettes. These almost invariably feature one of the few ghouls appearing for a split-second before almost immediately vanishing into the ether from which they came. These sorts of face-in-the-mirror/ scary kid in the road scares are fine when a film is first establishing its threat, and they mean the main characters doubt themselves – which is handy for training the audience to suspend their disbelief too. But the makers also ought to find a way to up or develop, the source of tensions. The lack of variety means the movie’s still doing act one scares, like a ghost blinking onscreen with the flick of a light switch, well into act three. There’s always the promise of it doing something, but we rarely see the curse go beyond tricks until it’s too late and the movie peters out. In short, were the new Grudge an evening of sexual intercourse it’d be drawn-out foreplay, done badly, followed by premature ejaculation. Right down to the awkward silence when the credits roll.
Part of why I wasn’t holding out for The Grudge, aside from it being the reboot to a remake of something I wasn’t huge on, is the choice of director. I rather liked Nicolas Pesce’s debut, The Eyes of My Mother, though nothing about it made me think he’d work well with a mainstream title in a studio system. There’s still flourishes off his talent here and there, and he once again shows himself to be a competent visual storyteller with impressive framing and an eye of mood. It’s also great to see practical effects during the blink and you’ll miss them scares. Still, try as he may, he can’t make this formulaic script enjoyable. The characters aren’t rounded enough to speak in more than functional dialogue (I challenge viewers to remember their names after), and there’s a real lack of imagination to its box-ticking approach. In a roundabout way, I get that this is maybe the point since the franchise is all about cyclic violence handed down from generation to generation – it’s always embraced its inevitability. Which is all very well thematically, but by the time you see another yet hand in the shower or face in the bed it resembles a greatest hits package by a band that was never all that good to begin with. The Grudge is the worst thing a horror can be: boring. We don’t fear the director because we have no reason to: we can make educated guesses what they’ll do, how they’ll do it and when they’ll do it. You’d think the studio would have learned something from Rings – if reimagining early 00s J-horror is going to make its comeback then it shouldn’t be by faithfully aping films from decades ago. Its subversiveness was why I had a soft-spot for Sadako vs Kayako (aka The Ring vs The Grudge) which honoured both franchises while having a lot of fun with their foundations. Hopefully, we’ll see more of that in the eventual fourteenth outing. Against my better judgement, I’ll likely see you there.